Tuesday, December 4, 2012

what is found in translation

I am interested in translation as an act of co-creation between the poet/originator and the translator. Not merely as transference but as a collaborative effort to render (literary) text in another language. To carry across as much of the meaning and feeling of each word within its larger context. 

I've probably mentioned this on the blog elsewhere but Setswana is spoken both in Botswana and South Africa, the South African linguist and writer Sol Plaatjie was the first to translate a number of Shakespearean plays in to an African language (Setswana) the Comedy of errors becoming Diphoso-phoso ie a kind of cumulative word meaning 'error compounded upon error'.  

We think we know what is lost in translation but what do we gain when language spills over from the primary tongue to the next? Do we for instance in poetry, lose musicality or do we (if we approach the work with a kind of critical reverence) invent a half-way version of the original intention, in trying to meet the original text halfway do we create something new? What of calques, loanwords, translation from a language without, to one with gender specific pronouns, introduction of the translators biases in all their beauty (structurally, linguistically etc)

Here is a situation. In 1996 the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature. Not unexpectedly, this, to quote David Lehman vaulted her "from obscurity to international prominence overnight. Editors and journalists scrambled to find Szymborska's work and commissioned translators to render it into English". By coincidence two papers selected the same poem for translation and publication in the same week. The poem "Some People Like Poetry" was translated by two different translators - Stanislaw Baranczak for the New Republic and Clare Cavanagh for the New Yorker. This is how they both chose to end translations of the same poem

Poetry -
but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

but what sort of thing is poetry?
More than one shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and clutch on to it,
as to a saving bannister.

You can actually find other translations of the poem all with slight variations, as well as other poems translated as a joint effort between Cavanagh and Baranczak. We are told that the word "translation", etymologically, means a "carrying across" or "bringing across". In Setswana the word for translation is "ranola" the closest word I can think of is "t(l)hanola" as in to turn something upside down or inside out. I suspect the root/derivation stems from this place. And I have to ask myself if both translators have, in carrying across Szymborska's poem from the Polish into English;  dismantled the original tongue and unpacked the second language, such that both fit into the translators' individually handmade moses-baskets at which point the translators placed those baskets into the river-of-all-they-have-ever-known. And if, of course, that river tossed itself silly to spill the precious cargo out, or onto its paired selves, and if perhaps seeped some of its own indelible ink to fill in any new spaces. Lets not get carried away this is after all a poem not some Chinese scholar's rock.

Grammatically incorrect positing aside, which of the two poems is true to Szymborska's poem? Well it seems to me (non Polish speaker that I am) that the answer is - in English? both.

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